Starbursts: Like Fireworks, But More Annoying

Since today is the Fourth of July in the United States (not sure what the date is in other countries), I feel I should mention that I love fireworks. Even if I don’t totally understand the point, I figure anything that is an excuse for a cookout and that can cause more than 400 people to show up at a Florida Marlins game has to be good for something.

However, when it comes to graphic design, the closest counterparts to fireworks are starbursts, which cause me to do what my son did the first time he experienced fireworks: burst into tears.

Whenever I make some unequivocal statement about what is good design and what is bad design, people come to me with arguments to the contrary. (“I use Comic Sans because I want people to equate my interpretive site with yard sales and take-out menus.”)

With that in mind, let me make this unequivocal statement: Starbursts are bad graphic design. Even if your product is FREE! or NEW! or simply AVAILABLE FOR A LIMITED TIME!, the starburst is the bold, blinking, animated gif of graphic design. The person who uses starbursts in design is the same person who emails you in all caps. Whatever reason a person has for using a starburst, I can assure you there’s a better solution.

I found this brochure in a rack at a highway-side restaurant in Wyoming. There are a lot of things wrong with it from a design perspective. It uses clip art, glowing drop shadows, random angles, roughly 8,000 fonts in every possible style, and a color palette loosely described as “all of them.” (It’s reminiscent of this design advice that Friend of IBD Matthew Greuel heard recently and shared on our Facebook page: “Keep adding fonts until the viewer vomits…then start adding colors….”)

Even amidst all that chaos, what stands out most is that it looks like the brochure was attacked by a pack of eight-year-olds wielding yellow paintball guns. I can’t be certain of this, but I’d guess that the person who designed this brochure has a background in producing late-night infomercials.

Of course, if you’ve read this far, you’re likely of a similar mind and the larger problem is what to do with that client (or boss) who asks for starbursts. This is your opportunity to politely resist and educate your client (or boss) about the more subtle and elegant ways of drawing attention to important information without resorting to the visual equivalent of punching your audience in the face. Sometimes the solution can be as simple as changing the color, size, or line thickness of your type, or possibly altering the composition to prominently feature important elements at the top of a page or within a large amount of white space. (There are lots of solutions, and all of them are better than starbursts.)

In the end, the things that make starbursts so terrible are what make fireworks so great: They’re loud, they’re obnoxious, and they’re pointless.

Happy Fourth of July!

Play to Your Strengths (and Take Advantage of Your Friends)

On a recent trip the east coast, I was reminded why I don’t go to Italian restaurants in my hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s not that the Italian restaurants in Fort Collins are bad; it’s just that the Italian restaurants on the east coast are so much better.

I take food seriously, so when I go somewhere, I want to experience that place’s strength. In Fort Collins, we have great microbreweries and brewpubs. On a visit to Texas earlier this year, I sought out Mexican food and barbecue. (You know any Texas barbecue place with a hand-painted sign is going to be great.) In Los Angeles this summer, Shea and I enjoyed seafood and, of course, Roscoe’s Chicken ‘N’ Waffles. A couple years ago, my wife and I had sushi for breakfast in Japan at the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo because we knew it would be the best sushi we would ever eat. (We were right.)

Each of these places excels in at least one area of cuisine, and my goal as a consumer of food is to take advantage of the best options available.

It’s the same in the world of design.

When I was in graduate school, I was told by one professor that I should work to improve my “level of craft.” By this, he meant that, in the course of constructing three-dimensional projects like models or packaging samples, I should try to avoid accidentally gluing my hands to the table or impaling myself with an X-Acto blade. Other students in the program would construct elaborate scale models of the Parthenon out of corrugated cardboard in the time that it took me to get the dried glue unclogged from the bottle of Elmer’s.

From this I took it that perhaps my strengths as a designer lay elsewhere. I developed a particularly strong interest in typography, because no matter how tightly you kern, it’s pretty hard to injure yourself with a keyboard and mouse.

One of my responsibilities as a designer is to know what resources are available to me—not just where to get good photos and fonts, but utilizing the knowledge and expertise of fellow designers. Not every designer is going to be great at every aspect of design. Just as certain locales will specialize in a particular type of cuisine, certain designers will excel in a particular area, like color, composition, type, animation, and photography, to name a few. There’s real value to understanding the strengths of designers you know and getting feedback from them. (Just make sure you go to the right person for specific feedback, or else it’s like eating sushi for breakfast in Texas and Mexican food in Japan.)

I’ve found, as I’m sure it is with any profession, that being a designer is most rewarding when you can set aside ego and competition and open yourself up to ideas and inspiration from fellow professionals. (I probably don’t even have to say that to IBD readers. I’ve always admired the way interpreters inspire and support one another, rather than tear each other down.)

I would encourage designers—those new to design in particular—to add one more resolution for 2011: Keep an eye out for work that you like and talk to the people responsible for it. One particularly great place to do this is at an NAI event like the International Conference or National Workshop, but even if you can’t make it to an event, pick up the phone or fire off an email to someone whose work impresses you. I can guarantee the conversation will be worthwhile.

And now if I could just get a few restaurant owners here in Fort Collins to pick up a phone and call my people in Philadelphia, maybe we could get a decent marinara out here.

Happy 2011!

New Year’s Resolutions for 2011

Last year, I made one New Year’s resolution—to figure out what was in the mystery Tupperware in the fridge in my office and get rid of it. I have four days to achieve that resolution and I doubt it’s going to happen. I’ve sort of grown attached to the container, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the new life forms that have started to form inside it. This year, in the interest of adopting a more positive outlook, I resolve to cultivate my relationship with the Tupperware container and understand the world from its point of view.

A year ago, since I had my own resolutions taken care of, I made 10 resolutions on behalf of designers everywhere, and this year, the tradition continues. Here are 10 resolutions that I’d like to see the graphic design community adopt for 2011:

  1. I resolve to stop feathering edges.
  2. I will kern away the space between the 1s in 2011.
  3. I will root for baseball teams that are within 1,500 miles of my birthplace or anywhere I have ever lived.
  4. I will not use apostrophes to pluralize, even when it comes to numbers, acronyms, and names.
  5. I resolve to use fonts that did not come pre-installed on my computer.
  6. I will not comment on the typography of my menu to waitresses at restaurants. (This one’s for me.)
  7. I will run spell-check and proofread everything before it goes to press—even headlines and captions. (Thanks to Friend of IBD Steve Dimse, who took this photo near his house and reports, “These guys couldn’t get it right even when the dictionary was two feet away with letters five feet high!”)
  8. I resolve to use a grid.
  9. I will pronounce the T before the L when I say Chipotle.
  10. I will blur less.

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If you have some of your own resolutions, we’d love to see them in the comments here.

Happy new year, and see you in 2011!

Get to Know a Typeface! Brush Script

In the heart of the famous Las Vegas Strip, nestled among extravagant, enormous themed casinos like the Bellagio, Caesars Palace, Treasure Island, Paris, and the Venetian, sits the unassuming Imperial Palace Hotel and Casino. It sounds grand, but compared to the bigger, newer, more expensive casinos around it, the Imperial Palace is often overlooked.

Once, during a cross-country road trip with friends, I stayed at the Imperial Palace with about 11 other people in the same room. It’s an experiment I am not anxious to repeat, though on the plus side, I think I ended up paying about $8 a night for the stay. Apart from its location and management’s willingness to overlook the fact that we could have fielded a baseball team with three reserves with the number of people we had staying in the room, the main advantage of the Imperial Palace is its “Dealertainers.”

Dealertainers perform three distinct functions: 1. Look like celebrity musicians, 2. Sing very loudly, and 3. Deal blackjack. And while most visitors to the Imperial Palace are simultaneously watching the performers and enjoying “free” beverages as they lose $5 at a time at the blackjack tables, there I am, commenting to my friends that the “Dealertainer” typeface (as seen on the banner behind Billy Idol) is our old friend Brush Script. This may be why my friends have stopped telling me when the annual trip to Las Vegas is happening.

(Note: The photo above is distributed by AccessVegas.com for promotional purposes only. So I will promote Las Vegas: Come to the 2010 NAI National Workshop, November 16-20, in—guess where—Las Vegas!)

When Brush Script was designed by Robert E. Smith in 1942, you could hardly have predicted how pervasive it would someday become. In its heyday, it was used widely in advertising and for other commercial purposes, as in the words “A” and “Release” in the end credits for the classic Tom and Jerry cartoon pictured here.

Brush Script is designed to evoke lettering crafted by hand with a brush and ink. It is informal but refined, more calligraphy than scrawl, not so much handwriting as artfully hand-crafted.

Of course, like many good typefaces, it ended up as a default computer font and became widely reviled because of overuse. You can see it everywhere from a sign welcoming you to Intercourse, Pennsylvania (the words “Welcome to”—thanks to Jeff Miller and the Towns with Strange Names Facebook page for the photo) to the phrase “Rich & Sassy” on sauce packets from Famous Dave’s barbecue to the milk cooler on my front porch.

When people who write blogs about graphic design get bored, they write top 10 lists of typefaces that they hate. Almost invariably, these typefaces are not inherently bad (except Comic Sans; that one is bad), but they are defaults that become overused. This is how Brush Script ends up in posts like 10 Most Overused Fonts in Design, Typobituaries, and A Plea from 16 Most Overused Fonts. These blogs are annoying because they all seem to list essentially the same typefaces, though when they discuss Brush Script, they usually make the good point that it should never (ever!) be set in all caps.

I argue that Brush Script is not a bad typeface, but that it has been subjected to both overuse and misuse. As handwriting typefaces go, it is well crafted and has stood the test of time. You frequently see Brush Script used to evoke a certain 1950s-ish feeling. The television network ESPN has one of the most carefully crafted visual aesthetics out there, and it’s not by accident that it used Brush Script effectively in promoting the Major League Baseball Home Run Derby last week. ESPN used the typeface in conjunction with a Vegas-style starburst (somehow they pull it off) and neon signage to evoke a drive-in movie theater or old-school diner.

As with any typeface, the fact that Brush Script is well-designed and can be used effectively does not mean that it can be used at any time for any reason. It has its time and place. Used effectively, with intent, and with other design elements that contribute to an overall effect (as with ESPN’s drive-in movie theater/diner), it contributes to a playful, fun atmosphere. Used carelessly and without thought, as it is on countless fliers and signs and T-shirts and whatnot, Brush Script is just another default font that’s going to end up on some annoyed blogger’s Top 10 list.

Social Networking and “So What?”

Several weeks ago while on a flight I had a moment of inspiration, took out my laptop, and begin to write a blog post. I usually try not to work (not that writing this blog is work) on a plane for the simple fact that it is a finite amount of time where I can relax, think, listen to music, and not be connected. In this instance, I just had to write. I was fully engrossed. At one moment I chuckled to myself at how cute, clever, and funny I was being. I could imagine how literally 10s of readers would be laughing out loud (that’s LOL for everyone else but me) or at the very least Paul would find funny and then pretend that it wasn’t.

When I chuckled out loud (COL—you can use that one too) the lady sitting next to me asked me what I was working on. Up to this moment she had carefully ended every conversation starter that I had in my little book of airplane conversation tricks.  Lines like “How many words can you spell on a calculator?” and “I wish I had a Photoshop Eyedropper to capture the color of your eyes” got me nowhere at breaking the ice. Even though I have grown accustomed to awkward silences I still had some ambition to be friendly and get to know the person that owned the shoulder that my shoulder had been pushing against since we were somewhere over Kansas. Here’s my response and the remainder of the conversation.

Shea: I’m writing a post for my blog.

14C: You are a blogger?

Blogger: That’s right.

14C: Every blog I have ever read has left me thinking that the writer is narcissistic.

Blogger (carefully looking up synonyms for narcissistic in Microsoft Word while pretending that her tone didn’t bother me): I’m also a park ranger. [Found the following synonyms: vain, self-absorbed, egotistical, and selfish; okay she hurt my feelings.]

14C: So you blog about trees and nature? (COL)

Blogger/Park Ranger: And fonts. (COTI, crying on the inside)

This led into a longer explanation of interpretation, the profession, and various niche groups (including the 10s of IBD readers). I kept the description short, to the point, and based on the non-verbal cues I was receiving and previous law enforcement training, 14C was quickly becoming a threat to my safety. Despite her discontent the conversation continued.

14C: Really (displaying extreme disinterest). I guess you tweet too.

Blogger/Ranger: I do. But I don’t have much a following.

14C: All of this social media is just an attempt for people our age (though she looked much older than me) to stay relevant.

Blogger/Ranger: You are right. (I have over 15 years employing the use of this line and I knew it worked. I pretended to continue working while learning new words on my computer calculator).

Once I had time to reflect on the conversation, as well as define narcissism, it became apparent to me that our society has grown more narcissistic than ever. Blogs and social media have amplified this human nature to new heights. Of course, this blog is written for a very specific audience, which has similar interests, related to the profession of interpretation, which therefore cancels the narcissistic connotation for Paul and me (excepting for when it comes to conversations about Phillies/Yankees, cereal, and the use of Papyrus/Comic Sans).

The conversation with 14C got me thinking about how many of our personal and non-personal interpretive efforts are geared towards our own interests, thoughts, opinions, and ideas, much like a blog. The conversation also had me wondering how it is possible to answer Sam Ham’s question “So what?” for all of the various types of visitors to interpretive sites.  We live in a world where more visitors than ever care more about themselves or their own personal experiences than the resource or the thing itself. Can social networking outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Flickr, LinkedIn, help lead to better visitor understanding and appreciation?

First of all I had to realize that a small dose of narcissism is part of us from birth. 14C hit the nail on the head when she said I was just trying to stay relevant. If we want to continue to be able to answer the “So what?” question for our visitors we have to be relevant to them. Wikipedia, another social-driven outlet, states that “Andrew P. Morrison claims that, in adults, a reasonable amount of healthy narcissism allows the individual’s perception of his needs to be balanced in relation to others.”

Now there’s a connection we can understand between perceptions and relationships. Being relevant goes beyond just being on Facebook or Tweeting, you have to understand the nature of these networks as well as their strengths and weaknesses. While Facebook’s strength is “relationships,” Twitter excels at the spreading of information. Where Facebook allows interaction, Twitter allows exchanges. 14C is right, we have to stay relevant by using the media to the best of its ability.

One approach is to appeal to the voyeuristic nature of social media. Admit it, we have all spent more than what would be considered healthy looking at pictures of old flames that we have re-connected to Facebook. Come on, I know Paul and I are not the only ones. It is a great opportunity for us to imagine what life would have been like if things were different. Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good idea. That is, admitting doing this not the looking at the pictures part. But interpretive sites can put all kinds of information, pictures, video, audio, podcasts, and almost anything else you can think of into these networks that will allow visitors or potential visitors to see what you are all about or allow visitors to re-connect with the memories of your site. If visitors come to your site with a better understanding of what the mission is then answering the “So what?” question becomes easier.  Be prepared for the positive responses along with the negatives. There are very little censoring capabilities with these networks.

How can we appeal to this narcissistic subculture? The best way is for it to happen on its own. Not to say something going viral didn’t begin without a little uncovered sneeze. Okay, that’s a little gross, but what I’m saying is that a grassroots approach to appealing to this culture can begin with some seeding. People like to have the feeling of discovery or doing something that involves exclusivity. That, combined with the narcissism of social networks, allows interpretive opportunities to go viral. By offering a behind-the-scenes tour or previewing the opening of a new exhibit, a website, or proof copy of a brochure, you can create that hype. If you use the word hype on Facebook you may be sent back to 1994 and receive a complimentary dial-up modem. The nature of the interaction on social media outlets, after attending your program, will definitely answer the “So what?” question.

You will notice a new feature at the end of each post on this website that will allow Facebook users to “like” posts and have that “like” reflected on their personal page. (We are saving the “dislike” plug-in for Paul’s posts.)

This begs the question, is it narcissistic to “like” your own post?

Comic Sans saves the day

Yes, we’re hard on Comic Sans here at IBD. In fact, a month or two ago, I wrote that using it makes a designer look like a hack. So rather than kick a typeface when it’s down, I thought we’d give it its due. The above video, called “Font Conference,” presents Comic Sans in a new light.

Regarding my own interest in this video, there are two possibilities (perhaps not mutually exclusive):

1. It’s a funny way to anthropomorphize some of the common typefaces we’ve all come to know and recognize.

2. I am a bigger nerd than I thought I was. I am aware as I watch it that I am laughing out loud at jokes about typefaces, but I can’t help myself.

Regardless, there are a number of funny, quotable lines (“Pencil, telephone, hourglass! Diamonds, candle, candle, flag!”), but the top honor, in my opinion, goes to when the font Ransom, holding Courier and Curlz MT hostage, demands placement in a variety of media, including Microsoft Works. Times New Roman responds, “You’re insane. Nobody uses Microsoft Works!”